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Let me first say that I am definitely not a team player. I'm a highly opinionated, extremely aggressive and strong willed personality who doesn't play well with others. I'm not saying I won't listen and learn from other people, but when push comes to shove, I'm going to be the one who makes decisions about my life. I preface my remarks about blog networks with that so you understand that I absolutely have innate bias here. I'm not a joiner. My motto is "Lead, follow or get out of the way, but I'm going down this path no matter what you do".
I think it is more than extremely unlikely that I would ever join a network. But I'm definitely a minority; most other bloggers seem quite interested in this. I don't entirely understand why, so..
I've been asking around trying to understand why people are forming these networks. I don't like some of the answers I have had. I think there probably are valid reasons to join a network, but I also think that many who join aren't thinking very clearly about any of this.
Let's see what some of the advantages might be:
If you just want to blog, and aren't interested in the mechanics, a blog network could insulate you from all that. This was cited as a reason by more than one person. However, no one I asked actually gave specifics, which makes me wonder about the value. After all, modern CMS (Content Management System) software for bloggers already takes care of hiding the more technical issues of blogging, so do you really need anything more?
This was also cited as a network advantage, with the implication that the blog network might have both more expertise at selecting the best paying programs and more leverage in dealing with them. Again, I pressed for details, asking how much more money someone might expect to earn as a member of a blogging network as opposed to being on their own. No answers came.
My suspicion is that there is no advantage. Many of these networks stay out of the income area entirely, letting individual bloggers run their own ads and keep the proceeds. Those that have "network" ad programs may be able to negotiate a better deal, but that could be offset by their take off the top. Again, no one offered any figures to support or deny this.
One respondent insisted that blog networks add credibility. I don't see that. Most of us decide whether or not someone is trustworthy and credible by observation over a period of time, and as most readers are likely unaware of the network anyway, I don't see that as changing. I'd liken it to a magazine announcing a new columnist: I'll probably read their column if I already read the magazine, but further judgment of their value comes from that reading and not from the fact that they were hired for the position. So even if someone is aware of the network's reputation for quality blogs (doubtful, I think, but I'll let it pass), individual reputations will still be made from individual contributions.
Interestingly, some of these networks have managed to create a definite cachet to membership by being somewhat exclusive: you join by invitation only. I can't say whether that is part of a deliberate marketing plan or just an honest desire to maintain quality. Perhaps it is a little of both; whatever the reason, the concept works to make joining much more desirable than it might otherwise be.
There may actually be more risk of negative reputation than positive. While a columnist hired for a respected magazine will still have to prove their worth to the readers, a formerly respected writer who suddenly appears in the so-called trash tabloids will lose credibility regardless of what they have to say. If you are a member of a network that has less than stellar membership, the reputation and words of other members will definitely affect how others would see you. Overall, there's very little credibility gain from a "good" network but much to lose from association with less respected peers. There's an old adage: anything you put in a pickle barrel will soon taste like a pickle.
This is another oft cited reason. I am most suspicious of this because any network has the potential to create a large web of incestuous linking among its members. Search engines see linking as an indication of popularity, and thus are more likely to direct new traffic to a site that already has many links pointing at it. It seems unlikely to me that the search engines won't "catch on" to the fact that these intra-network links have no more value (and perhaps even less) than intra-site links. So while this may be a benefit now, I think it will disappear soon.
I am also dubious because I was unable to elicit any details of what sort of traffic increase a blogger might expect to see from joining. Like the supposed financial gains, I felt like there was a lot of hand waving going on.
Because I'm the lone wolf type, this benefit eludes me somewhat. Is it the camaraderie of a shared activity? There are plenty of newsgroups and discussion forums where bloggers congregate, so why join a network? Pride of membership in an elite group could be part of it for the more exclusive networks, of course.
Conceptually, I understand that other humans get enjoyment from group accomplishment; it's part of our social nature and we wouldn't be what we are without that. However, we also take pride in individual efforts, and most of us have at least some degree of interest in "doing our own thing". To me, blogging seems much more of an individual activity than a group accomplishment: while you may be a member of a network, the network isn't going to write your blog (nor would you want them to).
There could be advantages to "birds of a feather" networks. If you have a group of blogs covering similar subjects, a network of those could be worth more than the sum of its parts. However, most of the networks I've looked at are uncohesive jumbles of disparate blogs.
The common thread of all my conversations seemed to be vagueness. One person said "It's a bit like trying to explain the advantages of vegetarianism to a meat-loving person."
Well, I'd expect that vegetarian to promote health benefits, citing studies of longevity and disease statistics, perhaps referring to correlations of cancer rates to high meat consumption and so on. They might also want to appeal to my humanitarian instincts by mentioning the unpleasant conditions meat animals are sometimes raised in and the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But if they just said "you're a meat eater, you will never understand', I'd call that a cop-out answer and think that this vegetarian doesn't themselves have a clue why they don't eat meat. That's close to how I feel about most of the discussions I have had with people about blogging networks: I do not think some of these people have put much rational thought into their opinions. That does not mean that they made a bad decision if they did join a network - good decisions can come without rigorous analysis. But I think it does indicate a bit of crowd mentality: "everybody's doing it, it must be the thing to do".
Often the "crowd" is doing the right thing. However, what's right for even 99% of people isn't necessarily right for you. If you are a blogger considering joining a network, I hope you will think carefully and examine all aspects of what you are doing.
If anyone does have counter arguments or actual statistics, I'd love to hear them. You can leave them as comments, or submit an entire rebuttal by email. I'd be happy to publish or link to anything like that.
Darren Rowse did make a somewhat detailed response to my questions in the comments section of his What Blog Networks Look for In Potential Bloggers post. Shai Coggins wrote and referred me to a good post titled Advantages of Network Blogging. There are also interesting comments at Successful-Blog Joins 9rules, the post that inspired my original questions.
Also see Why You Shouldn't Join a Blog Network, also by Darren Rowse.
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Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. (Arthur Conan Doyle)